Shouting out a secret shame

17th October 1997, 1:00am
Martin Whittaker


Shouting out a secret shame
A former school-dinner lady rebelled against her illiteracy with far-reaching consequences. Martin Whittaker reports.

The Pembroke Street estate in Devonport, Plymouth, has been transformed in recent years. It was once known as Beirut, says long-standing resident Sue Torr. "They used to blow up cars. There were fire engines coming here two or three times a day and the firemen would be attacked as well."

Now, after a Pounds 5 million renovation programme by Plymouth City Council, the estate looks bright and cheerful. There is an air of hope around and a strong community has developed.

Sue Torr's life has changed too - almost beyond recognition. Until six years ago, she was a school-dinner lady, a divorced mother of three living in a damp flat. She was just coming to terms with something she'd spent her adult life trying to hide - she was illiterate. Now everybody on the estate, and many beyond Plymouth, knows her secret.

At the age of 38, Sue went back into the classroom to learn to read and write. Her tutor suggested she write down what it was like to be illiterate, and she turned it into a play called Shout It Out. It was performed at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth and then on local radio, and won a Sony Radio Award.

Sue then launched a fund-raising campaign. She went to London to pester Virgin boss Richard Branson, and it paid off. The campaign raised Pounds 35,000 to produce the play on video, which in turn won a Royal Television Society award last year for best corporate video.

Now it has gone a stage further. From her office on the Pembroke Street estate, Sue, now 44, runs the Shout It Out learning project. It includes a roadshow on adult literacy that tours Plymouth schools and colleges, writers' clubs for all ages and a book-sponsorship scheme for children.

Her work has not gone unrecognised. She was awarded the MBE and the walls of her recently refurbished flat are covered in other awards and framed photographs.

"I've given talks on adult literacy in universities, to students and lecturers," she says. "And I had a letter from Reader's Digest asking if I would go up to London to give a talk. So I did. They wanted to know what it was like learning to read at a late age."

She reads out her speech, taking each sentence slowly and deliberately, hesitating over some words. The speech is very emotional - her life condensed into five minutes.

Sue was one of eight children and somehow managed to slip through the net at school. "I was brilliant at games but, when it came to reading a book or writing things down, I just didn't bother doing it. I didn't want to ask. I didn't want to bother the teacher. I left at the age of 15 unable to read and write."

Ashamed, she kept it from those around her - even from her seaman husband throughout their 16-year marriage. "When we were courting, he used to write me letters. When he was on leave, he'd ask, 'Why don't you ever write to me?' I'd give him some excuse. I didn't want him to think I was a dunce.

"One night my mother-in-law said, 'Sue, what's on TV tonight? Could you just have a look in the newspaper?'. I picked it up and pretended to look. 'There's nothing much on,' I said. 'What's on BBC2?' she persisted. 'Just a load of rubbish,' I said. In the end, I left the room and ran upstairs.

"You live in fear. You've got a twinge in your stomach every time reading is mentioned. When my son Glen was small, he had books with numbers in. First I learnt one, then two. I got up to 13. If I was out shopping and using my chequebook, I had to make sure I didn't spend more than that. Sometimes I'd copy down the name of the shop letter by letter so I could copy it again on to the cheque."

Having children brought unexpected challenges. "I was the one saying to Glen, 'Put your books down, go out and play'. I was jealous really, looking at him reading all the time."

When her youngest son, BJ, started at nursery school, Sue realised she could take it no longer. "One day I was sat with a bunch of children. They were going through a book and all knew the words. One child asked me to help her and I sat there struggling with it. This little girl said, 'You can't read that word, can you Miss?' I said 'No, I can't'. She said, 'But you're old. Why can't you read?' I felt terrible."

Sue spoke to an adult education worker who visited BJ's primary school, and then she attended adult literacy classes for three years.

She was asked to write down a list of what you could and couldn't do if you were illiterate. "I kept writing and writing. My tutor took it home. She more or less understood my writing and what I was trying to say. Then she'd type it out." With the help of a local writers' group, Sue turned it into Shout It Out.

Another play followed. The Playground was based on her experiences as a dinner lady and was performed at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. Sue is now working on a third production, The Pub, to be performed at Christmas.

But most of her time is taken up with the Shout It Out Project, which has developed links with Plymouth College of Further Education and the University College of St Mark and St John.

A survey published by the Basic Skills Agency in June, conducted among adults at the age of 37, found that 19 per cent had low or very low literacy, while 23 per cent had very low numeracy. Of those with difficulties, 15 per cent said they could not read aloud from a child's book.

It showed that those with poor literacy and numeracy were more than four times as likely to live in a household where neither partner was working, and that they would become increasingly marginalised and excluded as they got older.

Findings such as this spur Sue Torr on. In her one-hour show, she will give an adapted performance of her play, and do a spoof game-show aimed at children.

Sue still attends "Link Into Learning" classes nearby. And she admits her own reading and writing still has a long way to go. But she's determined to use her story to spread the message.

"I know that there are thousands of people out there who are struggling. I want people to point to me and say, 'That's her who couldn't read'. I have done talks where I have had parents come forward for help. They just say, 'I have been like you - where can I go?'. So I tell them." She adds: "They only have to ring me. I'll take them straight there myself."

Anyone wishing to buy a copy of the video, Shout It Out - Sue Torr's Story, should telephone 01752 607277.

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